Why You Should Always Wait To Transfer Points

Travis is my first new contributor to the blog, who will be writing a post every Wednesday to start. The idea behind adding guest contributors is to add different perspectives to the blog. Travis has a unique approach towards travel, given that he travels almost exclusively with his wife and young children, which is in stark contrast to my travels, which are usually alone.


By now I’m sure that everyone and their Grandma has heard about the upcoming devaluation to the British Airways Executive Club program, so I won’t recap it here.

Instead, I want to discuss the optionality of miles and points programs, particularly flexible points currencies such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, or Starwood Preferred Guest points. These currencies have inherent “transfer options” built into them, meaning that you always have the option to transfer them to other miles and points programs, sometimes with a bonus. As a result, these programs have a degree of optionality implicit in their programs, meaning that you are presented with a choice, perhaps one you weren’t expecting.

Changes to British Airways Executive Club

For roughly the past six weeks, the US American Express Membership Rewards program has had a promotion running whereby you receive a 40% bonus when transferring points to Avios. It’s the largest transfer bonus in several years and it’s set to expire on Jan 31, 2015, only a few days from now.

Therefore all of us with Membership Rewards points implicitly hold options that entitle us to convert 1000 Membership Rewards points to 1400 Avios. We can choose to redeem these options, or we can choose to let them expire. (Sadly, we can no longer easily “trade” them to someone else since American Express only allows points transfers to authorized users on the account.)

In this post, I will discuss how we can apply options theory to thinking about transfer bonuses. I realize that this is pretty dense stuff — trust me, there were times when I flat out fell asleep during my quantitative finance classes! But after a while, I realized that it’s a pretty darn cool way to think about a lot of things. So if you can stick with me for a bit, maybe it’ll make sense by the end.

Now who’s ready to Geek-out with me?

How Stock Options Work

In the stock market, a call option gives you the right to buy the underlying stock at a given price (the strike price) by the expiration date. You can choose to exercise the call option at any time, but you have to exercise it (or sell it to someone who will) by the expiration date, else it becomes worthless.

There’s a saying in finance that an option is worth more alive than dead. Here’s why.

Consider a stock that trades at $100. You hold a call option with a strike price of $75 and an expiration of Jan 31. Exercising the option means that you get to pay $75 to buy something that is worth $100 today. Sounds pretty good, right?

The problem is that you don’t know what could happen between now and Jan 31. If the company declares bankruptcy tomorrow, the stock could crash and be worth $10. You would lose $65 immediately (the difference between what you paid for the stock, and the price it’s now worth.) Had you not exercised early, you’d still be holding the option after the company failed, rather than the stock itself. In this case your option would be worthless, but you’d still have $75 in your pocket.

The key here is that there’s no benefit to exercising the option early. Holding the option instead of the underlying stock gives us downside protection — the worst that can happen is that our option expires and becomes worthless. Once we exercise the option, we end up with a share of stock, and are now completely exposed to any downside movement of its price.

We should therefore want to hold the option as long as possible such that we can “wait and see” what happens with the stock for as long as possible before committing to it. That’s why the option is worth more alive than dead.

A Transfer Bonus Is Like A Stock Option

I hope you can see the parallels between this example and the Amex to Avios transfer bonus. There was really no benefit to exercising the option to transfer points early, as it just opened up the possibility of suffering a major devaluation in the underlying Avios currency. (The lone exception would be if you were planning to redeem an award immediately, but that also eliminates your exposure to Avios devaluations.)

By continuing to hold the Membership Rewards points and the transfer bonus options, you could maintain liquidity and flexibility – if British Airways devalued their program, you could choose to let your transfer bonus options expire unused and instead transfer to Aeroplan, Singapore, or any of the other programs at some point in the future.

Here are the takeaways:

  • Don’t exercise your transfer options early.
  • Hold points in flexible currencies like Membership Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, or Chase Ultimate Rewards until the last possible minute, either when
    • You are ready to book an award
    • A transfer bonus is set to expire.
  • I recommend setting a calendar alert so you don’t forget. Procrastination can be good, outright forgetting is bad.

My Transfer Bonus Option Plan

All that said, this devaluation doesn’t seem so bad for my particular Avios redemption patterns. I’ve gotten good value from the short-haul awards lately, particularly in economy where not much appears to be changing. I don’t think I have credited a flight to British Airways in over a decade, so nothing is changing there for me either. The one award that I was moderately interested in redeeming in the near future which will no longer be possible is the east coast to Ireland in business for 50,000 Avios.

So overall, maybe this is not so bad, especially if it means that we’ll be spared further devaluations for a while.

And in the current climate of devaluations, “not so bad” is the new good!

I plan to proceed with exercising my transfer bonus option in a sizable quantity, likely around six figures. Ironically, this devaluation actually makes me more confident in that decision since this devaluation was significant enough such that I expect the British Airways program to be stable for a while.

I mean, only Delta announces a devaluation, and then devalues again before that devaluation even takes effect, right?

Who else was waiting until the last minute to exercise their transfer bonus option? Did you actually think a British Airways devaluation could be coming?Or were you just procrastinating like me and got lucky?

Either way, you can now tell your spouse and friends how smart you were.  Just don’t quit your day job to become an options trader quite yet.

Comments

  1. I was procrastinating due to uncertainty in my travel plans, rather than a possible devaluation, but I’m glad I waited nonetheless! Ultimately I plan on using them for short haul economy trips, so the devaluation doesn’t affect me. I’ll only be transferring in the low to mid 5 figure range, anyway.

    I’m facing another decision which is somewhat similar, but where the conservative choice is to make plans earlier. I’m planning a trip to Europe and want to return on Lufthansa F using Aeroplan miles. I’ve booked Lufthansa F before so I’m familiar with the release of the seats at T-14 days, etc., but there is still a bit of uncertainty there. The question I have is whether to book a backup option in advance (e.g., Austrian Airlines J at T-90 days) and then pay the change fees when LH F opens up (90 CAD for each ticket), or just take a gamble that we can find SOMETHING that gets us back in the states when we are close in. Is it worth 180 CAD to ensure a good seat? Possibly, but I’m not sure at this point.

    Anyway, this was not quite the same as the points transfer situation you described, but I find that this hobby brings up lots of situations that have time-components that greatly affect decisions.

  2. actually I had just redeemed 115k avios and have nothing else to book, so I’m ok! But it would suck if I hadn’t, as I expect with everyone trying to spend their miles as soon as possible it’ll get hard to find availability.

  3. @Michael – Only you can know how important it is to have a set return date. I would, if I was travelling with kids or had any vacation constraints. It just seems like a no brainer to have a viable reurn booked that you are happy with and if a better seat becomes available you take it. Are you seriously going to risk potentially paying way more for a last minute seat or using points on a less desirable return seat ie: in Y for $200 on a major TATL trip?

  4. Sure, there’s optionality, but I went ahead and transferred anyway since 40% of six-figures is an awful lot and domestic sub-2000 mile trips on AA were always my intended redemption for my Amex points. So I looked at January 31, the transfer deadline, as if it were a mandatory exchange date. All holders, absent earlier exercise, would be be given new options worth 40% less.

    Forget that.

  5. I went ahead and transferred the six figures to BA. I already know I will use those on the AA LAX – JFK route. BA doesn’t charge close in redemption fees and 26,786 MR points for AA F on that route is almost as good as the old US Airwyas 50k for round trip on 3 class trains con F. I love that service!

  6. @UnitedEF – You might want to check your math again. BA will now be charging 50k miles each way to fly from LAX – JFK in F on AA. All partner awards are redeemed at the peak time rates.

  7. Hi Travis,

    I liked this explanation, thanks! Sounds like I should hold off on transferring given I don’t really know exactly when I can go vacation. Is it still possible to book BOS-DUB with the old chart values? Would like to do that trip.

    Also, how far in advance does it take to book a reward seat usually? From Seattle area to Asia (HK or Tokyo) for example. Thanks!

  8. The devalued “pricing” only kicks in 28th April so there’s still time to book tickets at the old prices, should you find availability. Therefore, my take is now is probably the time to transfer and redeem rather than transfer at a later stage (and redeem at a higher price!).

  9. Tom:

    “So I looked at January 31, the transfer deadline, as if it were a mandatory exchange date. All holders, absent earlier exercise, would be be given new options worth 40% less.”

    I love it!

  10. Michelle:

    To be clear, I’m saying that when a transfer bonus is announced, and you decide that you want to take advantage of it, you should hold off until the last day to actually execute it. In other words, I definitely encourage you to take advantage of the 40% bonus if you think you can get good value, I’m just saying that it was better to wait until the end of the promotion period to make the transfer.

    The deadline is now only days away, so HOPEFULLY there won’t be any more bombshells dropped on us. I’d like to think that at this point we have all the information that is going to be available.

  11. @Travis,

    You said you were dissipated about the loss of the 50,000 Avios redemption between dublin and boston but if you redeem your avios via iberia plus you can redeem the route for 42500 avios (as lucky mentioned in a post earlier today)

  12. Looks like you’re worried about the Gamma and the Theta of your MR points. All of which could be solved with some Delta hedging…

    See what I did there?

  13. Has anyone had any success finding BOS-DUB business class space on Expert Flyer? There looks to be very little (if any) right now. Anyone know if there is any pattern to how Aer Lingus releases this space?

  14. I transferred 190,000 Amex points to ANA for two business class tickets JFK-NRT a day before the announced 40% BA transfer bonus. I was somewhat pissed at the time as I probably would have transferred them to BA instead. Now I don’t feel so bad 🙂

    That ANA award 75K, 85K or 95K business class from the east coast to Tokyo is still one of the best freakin’ awards out there in my opinion.

  15. @mww: I was trying to book this for my outbound to Europe, and after calling BA I couldn’t find ANY availability in J on BOS-DUB (or BOS-SNN or JFK-DUB for that matter) for the entire month of May. It looks like it is getting more difficult to find seats, particularly during the peak travel months. I don’t know if they release space closer in or if there is any other pattern to it, though.

    @Stephan: most likely I will play it safe, given that we don’t do big international trips that often. It’s not the bad use of points I’d be most disappointed with, it would be a Y seat on at TATL flight. Besides, I’ve always wanted to try out Austrian Airlines J.

  16. I actually feel liberated by the devaluation. Now that J\F travel redemption is preposterous, I am, to quote WN, “free to move about the country”. With a discounted sizable Avios balance, all my domestic Y travel will be on AA/US/AS until it’s gone.

  17. This was exactly my approach. I’m still weighing what to do. I was planning to transfer all my MR to use for business class on Cathay from Chicago to Hong Kong, but this is now 105,000 per person instead of 70,000, and there are 3 of us. I think I will still transfer them all, as I have always struggled to find value in the other redemption partners. Thoe short haul AA awards are still unbeatable, and using the Avios for TATL in Y is not unbearable.

  18. Hi- I frequently travel to Milan, (Pisa and Geneva also) from nyc area. I am having difficulties finding award flights without huge surcharges etc. I transferred amex points to my ANA account 1 year ago for 2 awards, no tickets yet. Still have plenty of amex points (ultimate rewards too) but is it a good idea to transfer to avios for these destinations? Can anybody help? thanks!

  19. @ amy — If you can fly airberlin and book before April 28 then it could make sense, since they have no fuel surcharges on airberlin. Otherwise it probably doesn’t make sense, though.

  20. Travis,

    I don’t necessarily agree that this is as cut and dry as you think it is. This “option” is not a contract, like it is in finance, and you never actually “buy” it, which means the “seller” of this option can at its discretion remove the option at any time.

    I don’t have an example but I believe this has happened in the past where Amex would end the bonus early. Why? Because BA sold as many miles to Amex as it cared to sell at that price point and time.

    I think you have to balance the risk of a devaluation with the risk of missing the opportunity completely.

    Thanks,

  21. Clint D —

    That is a valid point, and I actually thought of mentioning it. But in this case, I would put the odds of Amex ending the promotion early as very slim — it has a defined end date and it doesn’t say anything about limited quantities. Plus, Amex is a reputable company, so I don’t see them damaging their reputation by pulling it early. They knew it was going to be widely popular.

    So that’s why I didn’t consider it. But the point is valid. Thanks for bringing it up.

  22. Re the loss of the 50k option to europe in biz class…are you referring to BA redemptions on EI? I didn’t see where that was going away- or is it just the 50k for biz? As a person living in BOS, the 25k to DUB has been a cheap/easy way to get to europe, hope it’s not going away

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